First Person

Week of 1/31/11: Teaching & learning tidbits

DPS catches heat over decision not to close schools

Denver Public Schools’ decision to hold classes Wednesday was being criticized by some parents andschool bus students, especially after news that school buses ran 10 to 15 minutes late because of the cold and one elementary school had no heat.

Still, Superintendent Tom Boasberg defended the decision, saying that part of what DPS does is provide a social service – provide a warm place and warm meal for students. Watch this 7News report. What do you think? Take the EdNews Parent poll. CBS4 examines how school officials make the decision to close schools.

Jeffco Schools’ snow day will be made up in May

While students across the metro area have the day off from school on Tuesday because of the weather conditions, students in Jeffco Public Schools already know that the day off is on loan. Read the short 9News report.

State ed panel needs you!

The State Advisory Council for Parent Involvement in Education invites applications from parents to fill three parent representative vacancies. Under state law, the council is charged with informing public education entities concerning best practices and strategies, aligned with national standards for family-school partnerships, for increasing parent involvement in public education and promoting family and school partnerships to help improve the quality of public education and raise the level of students’ academic achievement statewide.

As required by law, parent membership appointments must be filled by parents of children who are:

  • Enrolled in a publicly funded preschool program;
  • In grades first through 12th in a public school; or
  • In a state supported institution of higher education.

Click on the detailed description and application requirements.

Denver testing system to give teachers in-class evaluations and feedback

An effective teacher will ask students to explain their answers whether they are right or wrong. Effective teachers also wait about 3 to 5 seconds for students to respond, but will give more time to students who are English language learners. Read more in the Denver Post.

D-49 contract buyouts for three execs costs nearly $760,000

When Falcon School District 49 ended the contracts of three administrators early, it cost the district nearly $760,000, district officials confirmed. Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

New LA schools chief to focus on teacher quality

The incoming Los Angeles schools superintendent says he will boost student achievement through better teaching when he takes the reins of the nation’s second-largest school district in April. Read more in the  San Francisco Chronicle.

Harvard report questions value of  ‘college for all’

By concentrating too much on classroom-based academics with four-year college as a goal, the nation’s education system has failed vast numbers of students, who instead need solid preparation for careers requiring less than a bachelor’s degree, Harvard scholars say in a recent report. Read more in EdWeek.

Englewood schools, Morgridge Foundation establish partnership

Efforts to overhaul Englewood School District received a big boost recently when the Morgridge Family Foundation established a partnership with the district. Read more in the Englewood Herald.

Schools look at why students are behind

Four underperforming St. Vrain Valley School District schools are changing some teaching methods to increase student achievement. Read more in the Longmont Times-Call.

Clock ticking on APS graduation requirement proposal

Time is running out for the Aurora Public Schools Board of Education to make a decision on proposed changes to the district’s graduation requirements.

The board is set to vote during its Feb. 8 meeting on amendments that would allow high school students more flexibility in choosing their elective courses and that would add science, math and world language credits to the current graduation requirements. Read more in the Aurora Sentinel.

Boulder Valley schools announce public budget forums

Boulder Valley School District Superintendent Chris King has announced the schedule for five BVSD public budget forums throughout BVSD beginning Monday, Feb. 7, and ending Tuesday, March 8. The purpose of these forums is to update and consult interested residents about the development of the preliminary 2011-2012 BVSD annual budget. Under state law, a balanced 2011-2012 BVSD annual budget must be approved.

  • Fireside Elementary School, 845 W. Dahlia St., Louisville, 6 to 8 p.m. Monday, Feb.  7
  • Boulder Public Library, George Reynolds Branch, 3595 Table Mesa Dr., Boulder, 10 a.m. to noon  Tuesday, Feb. 15
  • Mamie Dowd Eisenhower Library, 3 Community Park Road, Broomfield, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.           Wednesday, Feb. 23
  • Nederland Elementary School, 1 Sundown Trail, Nederland, 6 to 8 p.m.  Wednesday, Feb. 23
  • Lafayette Public Library, 775 West Baseline Road, Lafayette, 10 a.m. to noon Tuesday, March 8

Wanted: Ways to assess the majority of teachers

The debate about “value added” measures of teaching may be the most divisive topic in teacher-quality policy today. It has generated sharp-tongued exchanges in public forums, in news stories, and on editorial pages. And it has produced enough policy briefs to fell whole forests. Read more in EdWeek.

Colorado middle and high school students take a math test on a weekend

A three-hour-long math test on a weekend afternoon may be nerve-racking for most middle or high school students, but not for 17-year-old Greeley West High School senior Miguel Perez. Read more in the Greeley Tribune.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to [email protected]

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.